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Here’s the second in a series of short takes on the five trial cities. Three stills, three quotes and nine stats. Click on any of the photos to go to the Vancouver page of our webdoc.

 

The still above is from the Here At Home film “Heart of Hell.” As Josh Evans says in his guest post about it, “After prolonged periods without housing, individuals pass a point of no return, becoming so adapted to street life that escape, from their point of view, is unimaginable.”

 

Filmmaker Lynne Stopkewich was hoping to shoot a portrait of Mr. MadDogg while he was out traplining. That didn’t work out so she ended up making the amazing film, “A Model Person.”

 

You only have to watch a few Here At Home films to realize that none of the stereotypes about homeless people are true.

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 The Mental Health Commission’s “At Home” experiment has been over for nearly two months now. Here at the NFB, we’ve been following the experiment via a cutting edge webdoc called Here At Home. In the coming weeks, we’ll be publishing a final series of films and preparing to update and archive the site. In the process, we’ll be removing some of the statistics about the beginning of the study to make room for new data. But some of that info is too interesting to lose, so it’s moving here, to the blog. This will be the first in a series of short takes on the five trial cities. Three stills, three quotes and nine stats each. Click on any of the photos to go to the Winnipeg page of our webdoc.

The still above is from the Here At Home film, “I’d Rather Not Talk,” featuring a study participant named Viola. As Michelle Coombs of Elizabeth Fry Toronto noted in an earlier blog post, Viola manages to say as much with her silences as with her speech.

Winnipeg is one of the coldest cities in the world.   In “3 Hots & a Cot” Robert explains how to survive homelessness in a city where winter temperatures can dip as low as -40 C.

Lukas, a service provider with the At Home project, worked for years in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Returning to his hometown of Winnipeg, he found that circumstances for the city’s most vulnerable were just as bad there as they were in Vancouver.

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Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk

There’s no denying that we’ve cultivated a serious tone Here At Home. Just look at the sombre chalkboard background to the site. After all, this is troubling subject matter we’re dealing with; the participants in the At Home project have lived some extremely hard times. A quick scan of the study’s baseline statistics reveals lives full of violence, depression, psychosis, fear, pain, despair… what’s to be cheerful about?

Appropriately, the language used by the Mental Health Commission (which is running the experiment) is extremely sensitive to the difficult circumstances experienced by project participants. And those of us involved in the Here At Home webdoc have followed suit, taking our our cue from the Commission. Mental illness combined with homelessness is no laughing matter. Or is that the whole truth? At the risk of damning myself out loud on the internet, I’m going to admit to something here: when I first watched the latest film Life Isn’t Easy, I laughed out loud.

 

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When filmmaker Lynne Stopkewich set out to make a documentary with At Home participant Mr. MadDogg, she planned to film him traplining. But on the day of the shoot he was feeling too ill to go outside so they ended up doing something completely different with the film.

But just what is traplining? In the woods, when hunters go traplining, they’re checking their snares for catch. In Vancouver, traplining means something a little different.

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For the next three days more than 500 participants are converging on Tulsa Oklahoma for the 2012 National Zarrow Mental Health Symposium & Mental Health America Annual Conference. Among the guest speakers will be Jessie Close, anti-stigma advocate, mental health consumer and sister of actress Glenn Close. And we’ll be there too! Sam Tsemberis, Housing First founder and At Home consultant, is introducing Here At Home this evening. We’ve provided an interactive video presentation featuring two of our films. We hope you can make it to the conference, but if you can’t, at least you can watch the docs – just click the link!

 

 

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a still from the Academy Award-winning film "Ryan" by Chris Landreth, produced by the NFB and Copper Heart Entertainment

We know what to do if we see somebody fall down the subway steps or crash their bike into a lamp-post – call 911 and try to provide some comfort until help arrives. But what about this scenario? Walking down the street you pass somebody talking to the air about aliens and it’s obvious they’re experiencing an episode of mental illness. I, for one, never know what to do and end up trying to avoid the person. But this is a sorry response born of fear and ignorance. Our culture sensationalizes the (rare) acts of violence committed by people with mental illness when, paradoxically, it’s this population which is the most vulnerable. As a result, we, or at least I, end up shunning those who may be deeply in need of help. So, what’s the right thing to do?

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At Home is only one of many Housing First projects in Canada. Not only do programs in Toronto and Calgary predate the study, there are also Housing First organizations in places like Waterloo, Ontario. Lindsay Klassen, program manager and support coordinator for Supportive Housing of Waterloo (SHOW) says that the program has a 30 unit apartment building with large, fully-furnished apartments for single men and women.

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Poet and memoirist, Nick Flynn started working in homeless shelters in his hometown of Boston back in 1984. “I was doing carpentry on these single-room occupancy apartments that were being converted into condos. Every night I would walk out and see masses of homeless people on the streets. These were the same people who were getting evicted from the places I was renovating. It left a bad taste in my mouth and so I started working part-time at a homeless shelter.” Part-time quickly became full-time as homelessness reached crisis proportions in Boston.

A few years later, Flynn’s father, a con-man, bank robber and aspiring poet who had been absent for much of his son’s childhood, was evicted from his lodgings and ended up in the very shelter where Nick worked.

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Bouchra Arbach (on right), a registered nurse case-manager, walking with At Home participant, Theresa in the film "Evicted."

“Our team works with more than 80 participants and every morning we meet to go through the database and review each of their cases,” explains Greg Richmond, project leader of At Home’s Vancouver Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team. “We sort out what needs to be done and then scatter across the city to visit our clients. This project requires an incredibly high level of organization – I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

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Joe Hatch, before and after finding housing with the At Home study

“I weighed 125 pounds before I got into housing,” says Joe Hatch, a participant in the At Home study in Winnipeg. “But as soon as I had an apartment, my health improved dramatically.” Hatch, who has a B.A. in sociology, was working at the University of Winnipeg in the late 1990s when he began to experience panic attacks. “I was diagnosed with anxiety and prescribed Paxil, but that wasn’t the right diagnosis or medication.” Hatch had begun a 12-year downward spiral. “I struggled with depression for years until, after taking Paxil for too long, I went into mania and started doing things that were totally out of character for me. I became suicidal and violent.”

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In a recent post we talked about the ethical questions raised by the At Home study. It seems only fair that we now turn the lens on ourselves and ask some of the same questions.

As Toronto filmmaker, Manfred Becker says, “there are moral questions raised at every point in this project, including the filmmaking process. What’s my moral position making money off of people who live in such precarious situations?”

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Mark modelling at a CAMH fundraiser in 2011

Mark Wroblewski, the participant in the Here At Home film, Honestly Painful, grew up in a small town in Poland when the Iron Curtain was still firmly in place. While studying for a Polish language teaching degree at Warsaw University, Wroblewski participated in an exchange program in France. There he made a momentous decision. Nearly 30 years later, he remembers the precise date of his defection to the West – February 23, 1983. It would be many years before he could return to his native country.

After traveling throughout Europe and North America he ended up in Toronto where he worked at a series of odd-jobs, doing everything from fast-food prep to data-entry. He also managed to sponsor several members of his family for immigration to Canada. But in 2004, his mental health took a turn for the worse, a situation that eventually led to homelessness and time spent at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

All his life Wroblewski has nursed a desire to be in showbiz. In the 1980s he tried to get his foot in the door by working for the Church of Scientology in L.A. but this strategy never panned out. Years later he enrolled in a modelling school in Scarborough, Ontario, but that never went anywhere either.  “The secret to my success”, he notes with ironic delight, , “is that I never slept with anybody who could further my career.”  In 2011, he took a turn on the catwalk at a CAMH event and received a standing ovation. You can see why – he’s clearly in his element.

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